Son carries on #upperiowa tradition!

Chris Martinez (center) pose with mom Joana and dad, Hector Vega ‘00.

Chris Martinez has known since he was 5-years old that he would be going to Upper Iowa University. The freshman athletic training major from Miami, Fla., has heard his step-father’s Upper Iowa stories for many years.

Hector Vega graduated from Southwest Miami Senior High School in 1996. The Eagles were ranked sixth in the nation that year with Vega as the starting outfielder. Several of Vega’s teammates went on to bright collegiate futures and a few even played professionally. Vega, however, was small for a baseball player. At 5-foot, 7-inches and 150 pounds, he knew he had the skills, but kept getting overlooked. “I was stubborn,” he said. “I didn’t want to accept junior college offers.”

In the end, Vega ended up attending Miami-Dade Community College but did not play baseball at all. His decision weighed heavily on him. He missed the game. He missed being on a team. “I had the passion still in me, but at this point, no hope in ever playing college ball.”

In the spring of 1996, Vega went to see his former high school coach, and he told him that he would go to the ends of the Earth just to smell the grass on the field.

“He quickly called me out, ‘Are you sure you will go wherever I can get you an opportunity?’” Vega said. “I quickly said, ‘Yes, coach! Anywhere!’

“He picked up the phone right then and I saw him dialing, 5-6-3, and I thought, ‘That seems VERY FAR!’ On the other end of the phone was Coach Rick Heller. “They talked for about 20 minutes as I sat in my coach’s classroom waiting, hoping and praying,” Vega recalls. “Then he walked in and said, ‘You are going to Iowa this fall to be a Peacock.’

“I thought this was a mean-spirited joke. I had never left Florida, much less knew where Iowa was on the map; and a Peacock?

“I asked him, ‘Coach, are you serious?’

“He replied, ‘The question is - are you?’”

Vega told his mother and stepfather about this opportunity to play for Upper Iowa, and they agreed that he needed to leave Florida if he wanted to succeed. The family traveled to watch the Peacocks in action at Fort Myers, Fla., and Vega met Coach Heller. “It was intimidating because he is a very tall, slender figure, and I knew I only had one chance to impress him as I wasn’t much to look at size-wise.

“He said to me, ‘At Upper Iowa University, we will help you become a Peacock.’

“I replied, ‘A Peacock?’

“He said, ‘A ferocious bird that adapts; Can you adapt to our program? Do you have it in you to become a Peacock?

“I looked at him and smiled, and said, ‘Yes I do!’”

Vega trained hard that summer to get himself physically and mentally prepared for baseball and college, but Upper Iowa University was nothing like he expected. He boarded an airplane headed for Iowa – his first time in an airplane ever – and landed at the Waterloo, Iowa, airport.

“I was in complete shock to say the least,” he said. “Here I am, a Miami native surrounded by the smallest airport I have ever seen with two bags in my hands, and not a soul in sight. During that time, I didn’t have a cellphone, so I sat on the curb waiting for someone, anyone, to come and get me.

“In the distance, I saw a minivan drive up. The woman inside rolled down her window and called, ‘Are you Hector?’ With fear in my eyes and a grip on my bags that can only be described as ‘holding on for dear life,’ I nodded my head. She told me to get in the van and she would take me to Upper Iowa University.”

Vega said he was a reserved young man when he first arrived at Upper Iowa. He didn’t trust easily and barely spoke to his roommate. It took a couple of weeks before Vega realized that the staff, faculty and even students, actually cared about one another. “They cared that I was on this journey to get an education and play baseball,” he said. “They wanted me to succeed.”

Vega worked for Kari Solheim as a work study for the Office of Student Development. Dean of Student Development Louise Scott was a sounding board for Vega when he needed to talk. “And, they made me laugh,” he said. “They helped me develop my communication skills by having me answer phones and speak to others when they walked into student services. They even encouraged me to become a resident assistant.

“I never spent time alone, now that I think about it, as I always had my new Peacock family around supporting me and guiding me.”

Vega also found support in professors, Dr. Gail Moorman-Behrens, Dr. Janet Kehe, Dr. Lew Churbuck, Professor Mike Ryan and Professor Joel Kunze. “They have had an impact on my life even until this day,” he said.

“Whenever I make a family or professional decision, I think back to what my professors instilled in me and my abilities to think outside-the-box,” he added. “’Will this make you better? Will this make those around you better?’ It’s not what others think or what the standard might be, but how will this help you to be a better person.”

It was these life lessons that Vega wants for his son, Chris, and his other children, Nicholas, 12, and Mia, 6. College at Upper Iowa for Vega wasn’t just reading a textbook and going to class and practice, it was developing his creativity and passion for life.

“It’s about being better than you were yesterday,” he said. “I realized that I could adapt to living in a small town. I could meet international students and learn about different cultures. I could open my heart to others outside my family and become a more well-rounded person. All of these blessings would never have happened if Upper Iowa University didn’t have faith in me. I had to have faith in the university’s process.”

In learning how to adapt at Upper Iowa, Vega said he has been able to adapt and change through three different successful career moves from working as a teacher at a local high school to a human resources recruiter, and now as an analyst in information technology.

After graduation in 2000, Vega returned to Miami where he met his wife, Joana, and Chris.

Everyone who knows Vega’s story knows how passionate he is about Upper Iowa. “I have always told my wife that my children will attend UIU, and she agreed that no matter what it took or how much it would cost – we would give them the honor of attending,” Vega said.

Chris said he is very excited to be attending Upper Iowa. Just like his dad, he too hopped on an airplane bound for Iowa alone. However, he was able to visit a year prior to coming. With his dad and mom alongside him last September, Chris finally got to meet the people that have helped shape Vega. Scott and Solheim now have the opportunity to mentor Chris just as they did his dad 17 years ago.

That’s just a couple of the similarities between the father and son. Although not biologically related, they are both southpaws and outfielders. Chris will also play for the Peacocks this season.

Chris Martinez (left) meets his dad’s mentors, Dean of Student Development Louise Scott (second from left) and Kari Solheim (far right).

Alumna and UIU instructor Carol Jensen, Ph.D. ‘94 was recently interviewed by Forbes Magazine for an article regarding college debt. Jensen wrote “College Financial Aid: Highlighting the Small Print of Student Loans,” which was featured in the article.

For over 20 years, Jensen teaches business and higher education courses for Upper Iowa University in various locations including self-paced degree program, UIU Online, the residential campus in Fayette, Iowa, and at the Hong Kong, Manchester, Iowa, Waterloo, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien centers.

Volunteering: The gift given becomes the gift received

Ben Henthorn volunteers at the Beloit Fine Arts Incubator (BFAI) from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. He also serves on the BFAI Board of Directors and hangs art show pieces each month as the new exhibits change. 

By Debra Jensen-De Hart Special to the Daily News |

There comes a time in many lives when a saving grace not only saves us from ourselves, it gives us purpose and peace. For Ben Henthorn, the grace began long ago with an interest in art. The saving came much later.

Ben is a 1973 graduate of Beloit Memorial High School, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a 1999 graduate of Upper Iowa University. His working years included jobs as a security guard and a juvenile justice corrections officer.

These days, however, he can most often be found at the Beloit Fine Arts Incubator (BFAI) in downtown Beloit. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, Ben and his lakeland terrier keep the operation going. He also serves on the BFAI Board of Directors and hangs art show pieces each month as the new exhibits change.

Ben also holds the liquor license for the establishment and serves as bartender on the Friday night exhibit openings each month. He does not get paid for these services, and has been volunteering at the incubator for nearly eight years.

“He spends over 1,000 hours per year, year after year,” said Jerry Sveum, BFAI Board President.“It’s an amazing commitment. We’ve had our ups and downs here but through it all Ben has been here. He’s probably responsible for the ups,” Sveum said.

Ben’s life hasn’t always had such consistency. Due to health issues he was “medically retired’’ early from the Air Force after three years. He had become an assistant crew chief conducting inspections of C130 aircraft before take-offs and after landings while in the Air Force. 

After leaving the military Ben studied art education at the University of Louisiana and worked.

However, taking a full class load, working, being married and struggling with epilepsy proved to be too much and he dropped out of school. He also went through a divorce.

In 1988 he moved back to Beloit and continued his education earning a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and public administration. He then worked as a corrections officer in the then Rock County Juvenile Detention Center.

Fate, however, turned his life around once again in 2004-2005.

“I was in a motorcycle accident. I was hit by a drunk driver early on a Sunday morning,” he said.

Ben ended up hospitalized for more than three months. After being examined by physicians through the Veterans Administration, he was deemed disabled.

“It’s like my life was on the fast track. I was done with the Air Force at 25 and then I was done working in my forties,” he said.

As a result, he spiraled deep into depression. Ben needed to find a purpose to keep going. He was told by the professionals trying to help him to find something interesting to do and to get out of the house. 

A friend whom he had previously worked with told Ben about the BFAI. He visited, but most often couldn’t find anyone available to talk to about getting involved at the BFAI — as it also struggled to get its operation grounded.

Finally, he made a connection and then: “I stepped into becoming a volunteer.” 

And that has made all the difference. Ben not only began his daily volunteer duties, he also began partaking in classes in water color, pottery, photography and carving.

And, equally important, “I’ve made a lot of friends and acquaintances,” he said.

One of those friends is artist Dan Wuthrich whose art graced the gallery walls in July. As Ben hung the last of the July exhibit pieces, Wuthrich said: “If you did it, I know it was done well and done right.”

Ben has a daughter, Abigail Jorgenson, an award-winning artist herself and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Abigail also volunteers, helping her dad at the BFAI and at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

Of spending so much time at the incubator, Ben says: “It’s a nice gallery and a fun place, but I’m just one of the people involved here.”

‘Crazy White Guy,” Dano Grayson, credits UIU with launching career as Amazon photographer


With an Upper Iowa University backpack strapped to his back, alumnus Dano Grayson, Class of 2010, approached a stand of strangler fig (ficus ypsilophlebia). He quickly and deftly scaled its towering, thin trunks with the aid of a vine hanging from the rainforest canopy. Grayson recorded himself making this daring climb as part of a digital montage to give others a glimpse of the terrifying beauty of the Amazon Rainforest. His trip in early 2012 to the Amazon Rainforest was a “pretty legendary experience,” according to Grayson, capped off with a trek from the low-lying forest to the thin mountain air of the Andes.

From May through July, Grayson worked as a wildlife photographer for the Amazon Aid Foundation, and was named the Foundation’s ‘Artist of the Month’ for June. In August, he embarked on a trip, sponsored by the University of Florida’s Natural History Museum, to be a documentary host as he traveled through southern Peru and potentially Bolivia via the Amazon. He planned tocap off the trip with a visit to Easter Island to study what ancient peoples saw and why they built statues on the island.

Grayson has many stories to tell and the pictures to back them up – and he’s only 26-years-old. He has rescued an ocelot kitten from certain death, helped discover a new species of frog in the west Ecuadorean rainforest and witnessed the clandestine hatching of endangered crocodiles. And he knows, none of this would have been possible without his professors in the UIU Division of Science and Mathematics, and the opportunities presented to him through Upper Iowa University.

“I’m very happy with everything that I’ve learned through Upper Iowa that’s led to these possibilities,” said Grayson. “Had I not come back to Upper Iowa, (the trip) to Ecuador wouldn’t have happened, Florida wouldn’t have happened, and the trip to the Amazon….it’s like trying to cross a river using stepping stones. You’re eye-balling the next one while you’re on the first one.” Grayson said he is very thankful to his professors for instilling the importance of the scientific method, which he uses in his daily life, and teaching him proper scientific terms which allow him to “jargon-in” with scientists on assignment in the Amazon.

Grayson, a native of Arizona, initially came to Upper Iowa University to wrestle. He left school just three semesters shy of graduation. For a year and a half, he lived in Phoenix and hung around with his high school friends. He soon grew tired of the routine, and realized that what he missed most was learning. He returned to Upper Iowa in 2008, and immediately began his adventures.

In 2009, Grayson was selected for an internship categorizing frog and snake species in the rainforest of western Ecuador. His goal was to become a biologist, and he took along a simple digital camera that he had won at the Upper Iowa wrestling team’s casino night. When he returned from the trip, he showed the pictures he had taken to his professors, one of whom volunteered Grayson to showcase his photographs at a symposium. The feedback from the presentation was very positive.

For his next adventure, Grayson and roommate, Jacob Bruess, also Class of 2010), traveled to Key Largo, Florida, to work with snakes. Before they left, Grayson bought a new camera with the hope of capturing a basilisk lizard running on water. Twelve days into their internship, he accomplished that feat.

A friend of Grayson’s submitted a few of his pictures to various photography contests. He admitted that although his photos didn’t always do well, they were seen, and he started getting calls. One such photograph is very popular – an American crocodile with its jaws open, the setting sun throwing pink and purple hues across the sky. Grayson was actually quite close to the croc while taking that picture with Bruess standing over him in the event that something bad happened.

Grayson experienced five months of downtime after the Key Largo trip, but used that time to hone his photography skills and filming techniques.

A year ago, Grayson spent four months living in the High Andes Mountains studying birds under Gustavo Landono, a then-Ph.D. candidate from the University of Florida. Everyone involved in the project roamed the rainforest individually in assigned plots, doing forest searches, sensor installations, and cataloging data about nests including temperatures and egg/hatching counts. “We were living above the clouds for eight hours a day,” said Grayson, “where it was 90-degrees in direct sun and 20-degrees in the shade. At night, it was below freezing. It’s a pretty extreme habitat.”

It was during that trip that Grayson became acquainted with the Amazon Aid Foundation, which catapulted him to his next big project. One day, while he was out collecting data and pictures, the Foundation, along with Grammy-award-winning singer/songwriter Esperanza Spalding (also an Artist of the Amazon), had come to the birding camp. Grayson had left his laptop open and it continually scrolled the photographs he had taken. When he got back that evening, a cluster of people surrounded his laptop “oohing” and “aahing” over what they saw. When he approached his computer, he was asked by a woman in the group if the photos were his. It turned out this woman was Sarah duPont, the founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation.

When Grayson was home in Phoenix, duPont called him and told him she had a plane ticket for him and wanted to send him back to the Amazon – this time for the Foundation. His objective was to photograph as much of the Amazon as possible to help tell a story that fits with the Foundation’s aim to create awareness of the need for conservation efforts in the rainforest.

For six weeks, Grayson lived with everything he owned in three backpacks weighing over 100 pounds, trekking through the rainforest capturing images and video for the Foundation. He connected to the rest of the world using poor satellite internet, uploaded images and provided content for a blog through the Foundation’s website.

“The best thing about being a photographer is being able to share with the world something that has a high probability of never being there again - something as delicate as a frog that breathes through its skin, in a place like Ecuador that’s going to sign over a lot of its land to oil, and turbidity in the water will cause animals to push away,” he said. Grayson goes about working, taking pictures knowing that animals and insects he photographs he may never see again. “It makes for a productive time in the forest, photographing as much as possible,” he said.

His efforts and the lengths he goes to to capture those precious images have earned him the moniker, “Crazy White Guy” – especially among members of the Machaginga tribe of the Amazon. One night, Grayson walked into camp holding a five-foot long female crocodile without restraints. He had brought it back to camp for a group that was studying crocodiles. He set it on the ground and patted it explaining to the group that crocodiles are actually really nice if you don’t do anything to trigger their survival instincts. The Machaginga members of the camp asked Grayson to leave the crocodile because they wanted to eat it. He argued with them and said that he brought it back for measurements only, and then set it in the water so it could make its getaway.

When he’s not hiking through the wilds of the Amazon, cataloging its abundant and unique inhabitants, Grayson is a salesman for Oakley Sunglasses in Scottsdale, Ariz.. The stories of his adventures provide him many ways to connect with customers. He will be taking time in April to travel to all 48 states with a friend conducting seminars on the importance of conservation in places like the Amazon Rainforest.

For more on Dano Grayson and his adventures, log on to or find several of his videos chronicling his work in the Amazon and beyond on YouTube.






Wlezien ‘12 is head athletic trainer for WNBA’s Chicago Sky


In two short years, Heidi (McKean) Wlezien has gone from college grad to head athletic trainer for the WNBA Chicago Sky. The 2012 Upper Iowa University alumna credits her quick transition into this awesome opportunity with the education she received at Upper Iowa, as well as the connections she forged with the faculty.

A transfer student from Parkland College in Central Illinois, Wlezien chose Upper Iowa over four other universities vying for her to play basketball because of UIU’s athletic training program. “When I came to Fayette for my visit, I met Angie Leete (associate professor of athletic training and the director of athletic training education), and immediately liked Upper Iowa,” she said. “It was a smaller program, but that meant we had more hands-on learning with professors. Another aspect that was incredibly unique about the program was that all of the UIU athletic trainers were professors too. We worked together in the classroom and on the sidelines.”

During her three years at Upper Iowa, Wlezien rotated through the university’s Division II sports lineup working as an athletic training student for football, wrestling, volleyball, softball and women’s soccer. It was at UIU she met her husband, Chris Wlezien, a 2011 sports administration graduate and Peacock baseball player.

Following graduation from Upper Iowa, Wlezien became a grad assistant at Eastern Illinois University covering men’s and women’s swimming and rugby. After earning her master’s degree in one year, Eastern Illinois hired her as a full-time assistant athletic trainer. Last winter, one of her Upper Iowa professors reached out to her about an opening for a head athletic trainer for the Chicago Sky. The professor had gone to undergrad with the head athletic trainer at Illinois Bone & Joint Institute, the organization contracted by the WNBA team to provide athletic training services. “She asked me if I was interested, and of course, I thought it was a long-shot because of how young I am, but I said yes. It was an incredible opportunity,” Wlezien added. After a long interview process, she was hired over several other qualified candidates.

Currently, she is the only trainer for the 12-woman team, and travels with them throughout the May-August season.

Wlezien said she is extremely busy serving the needs of the athletes. “It’s all about time management,” she added. “I stagger treatments for the athletes based on their needs, their injuries.”

Despite the hectic schedule she keeps in order to serve her athletes, Wlezien feels very confident in the quality of education she received at Upper Iowa. “I’ve had two student interns and I was able to see the products of athletic training programs from other schools,” she said. “I truly believe that UIU’s program prepped me as well as it could have, and I am very grateful to have the education I have.”

UIU alumnus Jim Mazziotti ‘75 featured in EXIT Achiever Magazine


Jim Mazziotti ‘75 wrote a feature, “A Proven Track to Run On,” for EXIT Achiever Magazine detailing his connection between the railroad industry of his hometown Oelwein, Iowa, and how he made the decision to open an EXIT franchise in Oregon.

Check it out here.

UIU’s “Peace” and her sisters featured in Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier


Since 1963, Upper Iowa’s Green Goddess “Peace” has adorned the top of Alexander-Dickman Hall. Recently, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier journalist Pat Kinney featured Peace’s sisters recently. To read more about Peace’s time at Upper Iowa, check out

Kinney’s article is below:

WATERLOO | They’ve overlooked downtown Waterloo and followed its fortunes for more than a century. Well, at least most of them. And not always in the same location.

The statues on top of the old YMCA — now, River Plaza — building on West Park Avenue overlooking the Cedar River are known locally as the “Green Goddesses.”

Artist Robert De Glass created six copper allegorical figures that were placed atop the old Black Hawk County Courthouse at East Park Avenue and Sycamore Street in 1907. About eight feet in height, they represented Industry, Agriculture, Justice, Knowledge, Science and Peace.

According to a timeline compiled by Donna Nelson of Nelson Properties, which owns the River Plaza building, the five statues were almost contributed as scrap metal for the World War II war effort in the 1940s. Some local residents objected, referring to the “goddesses” as the only art in Black Hawk County.

In 1957, one of the goddesses toppled from its perch when a rusted stabilizing pipe gave out. It was, perhaps a harbinger of things to come for the courthouse.

In 1963, that courthouse was razed but the statues were spared. The goddess Peace was leased to Upper Iowa University in Fayette. The goddess Industry was lost or destroyed. The remaining four were moved to the Waterloo Recreation Center, now the Waterloo Center for the Arts, until the early 1980s, when Nelson asked then-Waterloo Mayor Leo Rooff to include them in a renovation of the River Plaza Building.

With the help of Warren Transport, Ralph Emerson of Cardinal Construction and Don Singer, who served on the Waterloo Recreation Commission, the goddesses Agriculture, Justice, Knowledge and Science were placed atop the River Plaza building in 1986. Their sister Peace can be seen on the Upper Iowa campus atop Alexander-Dickman Hall.


UIU alumnus Scott Lebin ‘64 featured in Retirement Advisor magazine!

Alumna fights bullying on social media with #ICANHELP


“After seeing what one school in one small town in Northern California did to combat negativity online, people all over the country became inspired to make a change.” 

Kim Karr ’04 is taking a bold stance against negativity and bullying on social media. Karr, a physical education and leadership teacher at Excelsior Middle School in Byron, Calif., is co-founder of #ICANHELP, an organization dedicated to empowering students to stand up to negative posts on all forms of social media. 

Karr has traveled to more than 150 schools throughout California sharing her message to students. On June 17 she made a special visit to her hometown of Decorah, Iowa, and gave a high-energy presentation to roughly 30 students, parents and school faculty at Carrie Lee Elementary School.

Karr’s message was assisted by student helpers who read aloud real-life stories of kids who have been directly affected by negativity on social media. Throughout her 90-minute presentation, Karr shared #ICANHELP’s five simple steps to battle negativity on social media:

  1. Post only positive messages.
  2. Report inappropriate posts.
  3. Block inappropriate people.
  4. Stop negative talk with positivity.
  5. Follow and support #ICANHELP.

Students who have participated in #ICANHELP training are referred to as “positive warriors.” Karr says everybody has the ability to stand up to negativity.

“People don’t vent to other people anymore; they vent to social media,” Said Karr. “The power of just one person standing up to negativity is incredible.”

Inspired by an incident at her school, Karr said she helped start this organization after a fake and damaging Facebook page was created for a local teacher, without her knowledge. Karr quickly developed the tools to help educate others how this negative behavior can affect people and leave a very hurtful lasting impression.

Overwhelmed by the support of her students, Karr realized “positive warriors” were all around her would help fight this unfortunate social media craze. These students have aided in spreading the word to other students all across the country.

For more information about #ICANHELP, visit